Free Willy: Escape From Pirate's Cove, now available on Blu-ray, exists more as a vehicle to launch Bindi Irwin's film career and less as a continuation of the earlier Free Willy franchise. Yes, there is a trapped orca that needs to be reunited with its pod. Beyond that, fans of the Jason James Richter trilogy may be disappointed. Not to say those films rank among the greatest family classics, but they packed considerably more excitement than this latest installment. Free Willy has been relegated to direct-to-video status and should be seen as a "sequel" in name only.
The blame for any shortcomings certainly doesn't fall on Bindi Irwin's shoulders. Miss Irwin is, of course, the daughter of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin. She has made quite a name for herself, most notably by starring in the children's documentary series Bindi the Jungle Girl. She tackles the role of Kirra with great enthusiasm and generally makes a strong impression throughout the film. That's really saying something considering the script, by Will Geiger (who also directed), doesn't provide much to work with.
Kirra Cooper (Irwin) lives with her widower father, a veterinarian who is already teaching young Kirra his trade. After a barn accident that lands her dad in the hospital, Kirra travels to South Africa to spend the summer with her grandfather. Grandpa Gus (Beau Bridges) runs a dilapidated amusement park that is sorely lacking in attendance. Kirra can't stand her temporary home at first, but after a bad storm she discovers a baby orca trapped in a lagoon that borders the amusement park. Gus immediately exploits the unfortunate creature by charging people to view it. Kirra wants to help free the young whale (which she calls Willy) so it can return to its family.
In a way the timing of this film's release couldn't be worse. The recent real-life tragedy at Sea World, where a trainer was killed by an orca during a show, casts a dreary shadow over the proceedings. Kirra explains at various points that orcas are harmless. She rides the whale and interacts with it throughout. At one point the whale even pulls her into the water, a moment that is milked for laughs. These aspects of the movie seem somewhat irresponsible and misleading.
There are also some wishy-washy ethics on display. While the movie ultimately takes a stand against holding whales in captivity, Kirra seems to temporarily cast aside her objections to Gus's money-making plans. Once she assumes her responsibility to feed and train Willy, she couldn't seem to care less how much Gus tries to rake in. Gus, on the other hand, attempts to sell Willy to a much better funded amusement park because feeding the whale has become burdensome. Bridges has some fun playing this codger, attempting to make him a lovable eccentric. But the script never makes it clear whether or not Gus has learned anything about humane treatment of animals.
Ethical issues aren't really the point though, as the movie is a fairly harmless time-killer for very young children. Of course, these days even young children are likely to laugh derisively at the cheesy computer-animated orca sequences. The underwater scenes featuring whales and other sea creatures look like something out of a video game. And with a running time of 101 minutes, the whole ordeal overstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes. The slower segments may lose the interest of even the most patient children.
The Blu-ray release presents Free Willy: Escape From Pirate's Cove in 1080p High Definition and it looks quite good. Being a low-budget movie aimed at younger viewers, it doesn't need to boast a stunning transfer. They could have gotten away with a shoddy presentation, but instead the picture is in sharp focus from start to finish. This is a sunny, colorful movie shot on location on the South African coast and it all jumps right off the screen.
Likewise the DTS-HD Master Audio leaves very little to complain about. There isn't anything fancy about the mix, but there doesn't need to be. The dialogue is always crisp and Enis Rotthoff's original score is punchy. The mix focuses primarily on the center channel, with dialogue being the most prominent element. Music and effects are heard mostly from the right and left front speakers. Occasionally some crowd noise or general beach ambience are noticeable from the surrounds, but this simply isn't a very active soundscape. The subwoofer isn't going to reverberate through your walls, with most of the bass coming from the music.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is a pop-up trivia track. I'm not sure the target demographic for this release is old enough to read, but it's there for those who want to know more. A few short featurettes, all presented in HD, are included. "Bindi's First Movie Video Diary" features the young star chronicling her favorite parts of the experience. "Greetings From South Africa" is a relatively informative making-of piece. There are a couple of brief deleted scenes and a cute outtake sequence. All in all, fans of Bindi Irwin will enjoy this lighthearted bonus material. Also included is a standard DVD and digital copy.
Free Willy: Escape From Pirate's Cove is likely an attempt to jump start this long dormant franchise. If it catches on there will likely be further adventures of Kirra rescuing whales. I'm not convinced that will happen based on this quality of this movie, but if you have children that are already enamored with Bindi Irwin they should enjoy it.